Monday, January 30, 2012

Mitt way up, Newt flailing about: The state of the GOP presidential race, the day before the Florida primary

I was initially going to comment on Cain's endorsement of Gingrich like this:

While it's possible that Cain's endorsement will give Newt a small boost in Florida, and while it's likely that the self-absorbed and not terribly self-aware Cain thinks his endorsement will mean a whole lot more, maybe even pushing Newt over the top, endorsing at this point is like hopping aboard the Costa Concordia.

But then I thought... wait.

That ill-fated ocean liner is just lying there, while Newt, after his poor (relative to expectations, but also in absolute terms) debate performance the other night, is sinking fast.

I thought that Romney might win by 8-10 points, but he's now up by a whopping 15 in a new NBC/Marist poll. Another poll conducted by various Florida news organizations has him up by 11.

Part of this is that Newt may simply have peaked. Expectations were high, too high, going into Thursday's debate, but the fact is, he was never going to live up to those expectations anyway. But of course the other key fact here is that Romney simply has the better campaign (even if he isn't a terribly good candidate himself): He's got money, organization, rigor, and, perhaps most importantly, the will and power of the Republican establishment behind him (even if they're behind him because he's all they've got and not because they actually like him all that much).

Now, there's no denying that Newt is still fighting. And why should he not? He's still doing well nationally, even if his lead has narrowed and a loss in Florida would likely boost Mitt back into the lead, likely for good. At this point, he doesn't have much to lose. His standing with the party? The party's trying to crush him. His future earnings potential as a leading conservative commentator? He'll be fine. His dignity? Please. At some point, sure, all his hammering away at Romney will be too much of a liability, but then he'll just turn on a dime and play the partisan hack again, saying all the right things on Meet the Press and deflecting attention away from himself by attacking Obama and the media. This, as you should know by now, is his modus operandi. Even all the Romney surrogates saying nasty things about him now will change their tune when the party has to unite behind Romney or else.

Maybe Newt is "mad and mental enough to fight on long after Florida," as New York mag's John Heilemann put it, and maybe there will be "a straight-out contest for the next four or five months," as he himself put it yesterday, and maybe if Santorum gets out and his supporters go to Newt, and... well, sure, maybe. But I don't think so. If Romney wins Florida by, say, 12 points or so, which the media would call a landslide, it's pretty much a done deal, what with the next contests coming up in the Romney-friendly states of Nevada and Maine.

At least, that's how it looks today. But if we've learned anything so far, it's that the crazy and largely unpredictable twists and turns of this race will end up biting your confident prognostications on the ass. Yes, I think it's safe to say that Romney will win tomorrow. But what if he doesn't win by as much as we now think he will? What if Newt makes it close -- say, 5 points? And what if Santorum does get out and endorse him (and/or his supporters go to Newt?) And what if Newt does well in the upcoming caucuses (not primaries, which are more open and less likely to be dominated by the hardcore party faithful on the far right) in Nevada, Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota? What if this really does become a tight one-on-one (with Ron Paul still in, of course)?

Hey, anything can, and could, happen.

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